Bad people make great art, and it is important that we learn to separate the two.
The death this week of Phil Spector was a timely reminder that great artists can be terrible people, and if we are to live in a world that has anything beyond a constantly diminishing selection of bland and uncreative music, film, literature or any other artform, then we need to learn how to separate the two. Art is, of course, an expression of the artist. But it’s not necessarily an expression of their worst elements, and we really ought to treat every piece on an equal footing, viewed on its own merits and not tainted by our knowledge of who the creator was.
Social media reactions to Spector’s death were somewhat encouraging in that aspect. Most people seemed to understand that Spector’s monstrous acts – of which cold-blooded murder was just the tip of the iceberg – didn’t change the fact that The Crystal’s He’s A Rebel is pop music perfection, and his work, in general, is some of the best music of its time. To throw that away would be dreadful, and pointless – an unnecessary sacrifice by society because of one person’s dreadfulness. There seemed, amongst the comments, an awareness that yes, we really could enjoy A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector without feeling guilty; that doing so did not diminish his crimes or devalue his victims.
If only the people defending Spector’s work were consistent in their wish to separate art from the artist. But unfortunately, it seems that a willingness to do this depends very much on just who the artist is, and how much the beholder likes their work. It’s a depressing truth that many of those who have defended the right to still admire Spector’s recordings are the same people who want to cancel artists and their art because they have done or said something beyond the pale. Often, that is something far less shocking than murder, if you have any sense of perspective – supporting Trump, questioning Trans ideology or simply being accused of a crime (without ever having been charged, let alone convicted) really ought to come below shooting someone in the face in terms of being something that we can overlook while admiring a person’s work.
We live in a world where J.K. Rowling’s hand-wringingly right-on fantasy books are ostentatiously burned by the people who once treated them as a new Bible – there’s no one as despised as a fallen God I guess. It’s a world where it becomes harder and harder to even discuss novels or filmmakers or musicians because someone is going to pipe up with “yeah, he’s a dreadful Tory and a tax avoider”. I look at this and wonder what actual pleasure these people can take from art if the creators need to be vetted and then maintain a total adherence to what we believe, even when we change our minds. Does a beloved work suddenly become untouchable because the creator has done something that we disapprove of? How does that mind switch even work?
And it’s often all or nothing. it’s amazing just how easily we can forgive people for the most awful crimes if we like them, and then how quickly we will turn on them when the cultural tides shift. Roman Polanski’s crimes were, until very recently, massively downplayed and excused, the man feted by filmmakers, critics and award academies. But now, we are supposed to find all that work somehow suspect and unacceptable – a #metoo era turnaround in how we can see his films. I can’t for the life of me see how throwing my copy of Rosemary’s Baby in the bin teaches him a lesson, or – more importantly – how his real-life behaviour somehow diminishes an extraordinary body of work. Yes, even the films he made after he fled justice. It is entirely possible to wholeheartedly condemn Polanski while accepting that Tess and Bitter Moon are magnificent works that the world would be a slighter lesser place without.
The worst of all is the cancelling of people for having the ‘wrong’ political opinions. It’s not just the fact that we don’t want them to work again – it’s the idea that all their old work is now tainted. And for what? Disagreeing with us? It’s insane. One of the many awful aspects of social media, of course, has been the eagerness of celebrities to express every half-baked thought that enters their heads, giving us an insight into who they really are. This, combined with the insane levels of political tribalism to have emerged in the last decade or so, has led us into dark areas, where commenters will now line up to piss on the grave of a beloved star who has died because of course, he was a Tory or Lefty, a chauvinist or a Wokester, or somehow or other didn’t live up to our exacting and ever-expanding requirements. Let’s just enjoy their work without scraping the barrel in search of reasons why they once expressed support for Thatcher and so must be forever damned as an artist. The expectation that our creatives must constantly apologise for wrongthink or unpopular political ideas or making an off-colour homophobic, racist or sexist joke in 1974 is actually insane, especially as the apologies will never be accepted anyway.
If – as seems to be increasingly the case with critics, particularly in a culturally fractured America – we have to view all art through the lens of who made it, then we will end up losing an awful lot. For the more extreme elements of the social justice movement, I suspect a Year Zero approach is exactly what they want – all old art was made by people who are immediately suspect because of their cultural environment, after all – but the problem with that approach, quite apart from the obvious one, is that every year would have to be a new Year Zero, as the list of social taboos and forbidden ideas is expanded and tweaked.
It’s really time that we opened our eyes and accepted that art – including art being made and loved right now – is often made by people who are, in one way or another, quite awful. And even if they are not, there’s still a chance that they’ll have opinions and beliefs that clash with ours. To throw away art – sometimes important cultural works – because they no longer fit with our sensibilities or because the individual is a dreadful monster seems incredibly short-sighted and a road without end. Humanity is flawed and awful and reprehensible, and our art is always going to reflect that, no matter how much we try to rewrite history or make a stand against the Bad People. Burning books that you love because the author has said something to upset you, being unable to sit through a Bond film without having to point out to everyone else that Sean Connery was a horrible misogynist or demanding that centuries-old art be removed from galleries because the artist was a slave owner does nothing to mitigate the offence and everything to diminish your own cultural life and that of others.
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